New voices weigh in on Iraq

As doubts rise over the war's handling, the Iraq Study Group aims to be a fresh influence.

Amid slumping poll numbers for President Bush and defections of retired military brass and conservative heavyweights over the handling of the Iraq war, some of Washington's most effective insiders are reaching out to help the White House.

In another era, they'd be called "the wise men" - although this group includes a woman, former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. They're the ones a president calls on, or who call on him, when something needs fixing, usually a war.

"This is a big mountain to climb: to try to identify for the country the path forward in Iraq," said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, co-chair of the 10-member Iraq Study Group (ISG), after its first meeting last week.

Created by Congress, the ISG aims to make a forward-looking, independent assessment of the situation on the ground in Iraq. Like the 9/11 commission, also co-chaired by Mr. Hamilton, it ruled out any interest in assigning blame.

Indeed, some prominent experts wouldn't be part of the group, because they had already taken a position on the war.

"We are looking for insights and advice that might be helpful to the president," said former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the other cochair, on Tuesday.

While Mr. Bush has said he "welcomes" the initiative, he has yet to fully endorse it. Sources close to the Iraq Study Group say the White House is waiting to see if it is going to be independent or fall into a pattern of partisan, campaign-season attacks.

"If this group does a good job, they could help kick this administration out of a quagmire," says Pamela Keeton of the United States Institute of Peace, an independent Washington institution funded by Congress, and a lead ISG sponsor.

One example of such an intervention dates from the Iran-contra scandal of the mid-1980s, when President Ronald Reagan reached out to David Abshire, then US ambassador to NATO, to give him an independent take outside his usual circle of aides to determine what went wrong and how to fix it.

"In my 12 meetings, I would tell him what I found out on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, and it was a different story than he was getting," says Mr. Abshire, president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency in Washington, which is supporting the ISG.

"You build trust by reaching out," he adds. "A lot of criticism can be made on how we got into Iraq - underplanned and undermanned. But we're there," he says.

"Mark Twain once said: 'History doesn't repeat itself, but it can rhyme.' For us to let this situation not rhyme with Vietnam, you've got to have a bipartisan coming together. You've got to have a two-way street between the White House and the Congress."

In recent weeks, several retired generals have criticized the Bush administration and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for ignoring military advice and suppressing dissent.

"I'm having my own personal turmoil on this," says another retired general, who says he was approached by Senate Democrats last week to "add to the bench" of those who have come out against the handling of the war. He asked not to be identified until he decided whether to go public with his concerns. "I'm trying to get beyond the vitriol and find the high ground out there - and it's difficult."

Senate Democrats say they are not making a concerted effort to enlist more retired generals to publicly oppose the war.

"It's very out of character for general officers to take public positions like this," says Sen. Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island, point man for the Democratic caucus on the war. "It shows there is a deep sense of concern."

Still, he says, prospects exist for a new beginning in Iraq, especially if the White House reaches beyond the tight circle that has so far directed its policy there. "It's never too late to come together on a matter of this importance, but it requires a willingness on the part of the White House to indicate that there is a new search for better answers," adds Senator Reed. "But to have an effective policy, it has to rest on a realistic sense of what is going on."

Last week former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, said in a speech that the US should withdraw most of its troops from Iraq. "It was an enormous mistake for us to try to occupy that country after June of 2003," he said.

When criticism mounted over the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson called on Washington powerbroker Clark Clifford to make an independent assessment. One of a group of outside advisers dubbed "the wise men," Mr. Clifford went on to replace Johnson's embattled Defense secretary, Robert McNamara.

An early objective of the Iraq Study Group is to make an independent assessment of what is happening on the ground in Iraq. To that end, the White House has promised cooperation, including travel arrangements to the region.

"When a presidency has been turned around, particularly the modern presidency, there's often an outside element," says Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University in New Jersey.

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